Case Studies

Managing Difficult Conversations: Using Animations of Highway Projects to Soothe Public Panic


 “Part of our job is to sell the job,” says American Structurepoint Vice President Cash Canfield. “We want city officials to look good—and of course, all the stakeholders want to know how a project will look and function after construction, and they want to know how it will affect their lives during construction. It’s a tall order.”

To accomplish all that, and for managing difficult conversations with the public, American Structurepoint uses 3D renderings and sophisticated, phased traffic animations that show access and traffic flow at all stages of construction. The company now considers this a routine early step for projects with significant impact.

“On past projects, companies like ours just kind of did what we needed to do and let city officials do the work of explaining things to adjoining owners,” Canfield says. “That’s changed, and rightly so; we have a responsibility to explain our proposals to the public.”

The Super 70 project, a 2007 upgrade of Indianapolis’ busiest stretch of highway, marked American Structurepoint’s first use of 3D models at public meetings. “We were closing several ramps during construction, which of course had a huge impact on local businesses,” Canfield explains. “Owners needed answers to very basic, very vital questions—like how they were going to get supplies in and out.”

On a more recent project—the now-complete Keystone Parkway in Carmel, Indiana—American Structurepoint made use of even more sophisticated models and 3D animations. Though now hailed as the greenest highway intersection in the United States, the project was a particularly tough sell.

“Carmel is practically the United States’ capital of roundabouts, but even here the design we were proposing was radical,” says American Structurepoint Vice President Michael T. McBride, PE. “In a densely occupied area, we were converting a signalized intersection to a grade-separated intersection, lowering the main road, and building a bridge. And the whole thing has an unusual look—long and peanut-shaped.”

The team at American Structurepoint was confident that the new intersection design was a winner. Its footprint is a third smaller than traditional intersections, which preserved dozens of buildings; it improves traffic flow and safety by eliminating traffic lights; and it greatly improves pedestrian and bicycle access. But for the great majority of the public who aren’t traffic engineers, the Keystone double roundabout interchange is undeniably complex and hard to visualize in operation.

State involvement added another layer of complexity. “INDOT [Indiana Department of Transportation] was initially the owner of this intersection,” McBride explains. “And they planned to upgrade to a total of seven lanes, with signals. The community was against that, so the mayor started a conversation with INDOT about taking over the Keystone Parkway.”

American Structurepoint became involved in the conversation as a partner with the city of Carmel, long before beginning formal design work. So the first difficult discussions regarding Keystone took place with INDOT, and models and animations were created with Autodesk 3ds Max to explain the city’s vision. “The state knew very little about roundabouts at the time, and they were a little squeamish,” says McBride. “The traffic simulations helped a lot—seeing how traffic flowed, from the driver’s viewpoint, answered a lot of questions.” The talks were successful. Carmel and INDOT reached agreements on transfer, operation, and funding of the innovative parkway proposal.

McBride’s insight into the project is uniquely valuable. Although he’s now with American Structurepoint, his first involvement with the project was as Carmel’s city engineer, and the initial conceptual proposals came from him. So McBride was doubly invested in the project and the 3D work, which was used in meetings and published online through most of the project life cycle.

“Whenever we showed the traffic simulations, the usual murmuring you hear during presentations just stopped. There were still naysayers, of course, but for the most part, people were won over,” McBride says. “For business owners, construction sequencing was the biggest concern—they’re concerned about the next quarter, not the next year or two. They needed visualizations of each construction phase that addressed their concerns in detail.”

At several public meetings during that project, Canfield saw the tension and anger dissipate and turn to understanding and acceptance. “The models, and especially the animations, absolutely helped,” he says. “When we presented animations of traffic flow at various stages, people would get quiet and just watch. And then they’d start to nod as understanding dawned—the mood of the room would lighten in just a few minutes.”

But it wasn’t all for show. Canfield asserts that it was important to base those visualizations on accurate information for the actual design. “After the Keystone Parkway was completed,” he says, “we used a helicopter to gather photo and video data of the completed project and compared those to our presentations—it was hard to tell the difference!”

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